New York State, Pennsylvania, Maryland. We stopped to peruse the maps and make a routing decision. Heading directly for Interstate 95, which would take us directly into Florida, would entail driving round Baltimore and Washington DC during the evening rush hour. This looked like it might be an unpleasant delay. There was a detour through West Virginia and Virginia which would bring us onto the I95 south of the major conurbations; it looked a little longer but much less built up. Clearly a good idea. I had driven the first six hours, it was Randy’s turn to take the wheel and I settled happily into the passenger seat to start enjoying the view and note down some of the truly bizarre road signs we’d been marvelling at.
Pennsylvania definitely wins on both daftness and impossible grammar grounds. ‘Beware aggressive drivers’ for a start. Who is doing the bewaring? Does one beware of aggressive drivers? And if so how? One could look in one’s mirrors a lot and keep a decent distance from other people, but that’s um, just, driving. Is it the aggressive drivers who should beware? And if so, what of? Each other? Then there was the peerless ‘Aggressive driver high accident zone’. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Aggressive drivers cause more accidents here than in other places? Why? Is it something to do with the road layout? Does it make people aggressive? If so, is a sign really the answer? There were cute ones too, I rather warmed to ‘Buckle up next million miles’; but ‘Be alert heavy truck traffic’ oh don’t get me started.
The rain began somewhere in West Virginia. The further we drove the harder it rained. It was becoming quite hard to see the road at all. A famous attempt to pull into a MacDonalds for a wee and a coffee (oddly enough, despite the general crappiness of all things MacDonalds, they do make remarkably good coffee, truckers learn this sort of stuff) was totally snookered by an inability to see where the pavement ended and the entrance to the car park began. We ended up trying to reverse across three lanes of traffic out of the exit we’d tried to enter, Randy took it personally and won’t drive in West Virginia any more. We crossed into Virginia (‘Buckle up Virginia’, now that’s quite friendly and to the point) as dusk fell. Then it got foggy. It got foggier. And foggier. There were permanent signs now saying ‘Heavy fog’ but we knew that. There were huge orange cats’ eyes lining both sides of the road like a runway so that, despite the fog, we could still sort of see where the edges were. ‘Goodness’ we said to each other, ‘it must get foggy here like this quite a lot, they are well equipped for it.’ We were going more and more slowly. It took ages. We began to think that maybe Baltimore and Washington in the rush hour might have been a better bet. But then, all of a sudden the fog began to lift, we seemed to be going down, although we hadn’t really noticed going up, and the fog and the runway lights ended both together. There was a road sign. ‘Guess what?’ I chirruped, ‘that was the Misty Mountain. It’ll be funny by tomorrow.’ I looked at the map. ‘This is Virginia isn’t it? I think we’ve just driven over the Blue Ridge Mountains.’ Guess we both need new reading glasses.
Things got less interesting after that. We found our overnight stop in Richmond, arriving in a bedraggled heap moaning about having driven for 12 hours, just as though we weren’t used to insane truckers’ hours. Revived by a pleasant dinner and tolerable breakfast we found the I95 just the other side of Richmond and commenced much driving in a straight line. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Wees, coffees, snacks. The weather got warmer. We saw a palm tree somewhere in Georgia and cheered, it felt like ‘nearly Florida’ even if it wasn’t. Mostly, day two of the grand road trip was a bit of a blur. Then, as dusk fell again we crossed into Florida with a slightly more enthusiastic cheer and started to rustle about for the Googlemap directions to Cherry’s house in Kissmmee.
The first clue that Florida roads might be a little more aggressive than the rest of the US came with the inevitable road signs. ‘Buckle up. Just do it’. How fierce, no whimsy at all. Deary me. It was my turn to drive the final leg and all of a sudden we were tailgated, undertaken, people swerved to and fro in front of us, deciding to take exits from the outside lane a nanosecond before the ramp disappeared, trucks merged an inch from our exhaust pipe. What was going on? People retire to Florida, it’s hardly New York City. I took it personally.
The Googlemap directions took us in and out of Orlando, on and off a toll road and out to Kissimmee itself. The toll road worried us somewhat. We had organised for the car an electronic transponder back in New York State, which had got us uneventfully through all the tollbooths and turnpikes in the North Eastern US, but the deal stopped at Virginia. Florida had their own system apparently. There were signs everywhere warning of the dire consequences of toll defaults, and of photo surveillance. We were running a bit low on cash, and it all looked a bit daunting. ‘I hope they take credit cards’ I fretted. ‘You’d better dig my card out of my bag, I can have it ready then’, as I scanned the tollbooths for one that said it was non-electronic, or that it took cards, or whatever passed for helpful in Florida. In the dark, they all looked the same. With a sinking feeling that the dire consequences of knowing-the-system-default would soon become apparent, I stopped at a toll booth. A smiling lady asked for a dollar. ‘A dollar?’ I queried. ‘Yes Ma’am.’ Randy found her a dollar and put the credit card away. I beamed at her, stupidly delighted. ‘Thank you very much.’ And we left a bemused tollboothperson behind us, to giggle our way onwards and debate among ourselves how much it must cost to implement photographic surveillance to retrieve the occasional dollar.
I had neglected to print off an actual map view of Cherry’s house and the instructions got a bit garbled. Every road in Florida seemed to have three or four names and numbers. None of the names and numbers on our instructions seemed to match with any real live road signs. It was eleven thirty at night, we’d been on the road for thirty-six hours, a full twenty-four of which had been spent driving. And of course, it finally happened; after 2400 kms with nary a hiccup we got lost in Downtown Kissimmee. We parked up to look at the instructions again, neglecting to notice that we had come to rest by a fire hydrant. Two police cars appeared from nowhere, flipped their lights on to attract my attention and pointed. We were supposed to park round the corner. Did they amble over to help the lost tourists with Ontario plates? Of course not. But I was thankful just not to be arrested. We swallowed our pride and gave in, I called Cherry from my cellphone. She and Ron turned out in the dark to come and find us and lead us the rest of the way. Lovely people.